Colonel Oleg Podovalov is bracing himself for Sunday’s Crimean referendum – and for the violence he says will almost inevitably follow.
Col Podovalov is deputy commander of Belbek military airport, one of dozens of Crimean facilities occupied by Russian troops last month. He and his men are hemmed into a clutch of administrative buildings on the south side of Belbek, which the Russian troops and their militia helpers next door have threatened to storm unless the Ukrainians surrender.
So far they are holding their ground. But the pressure will intensify after Sunday’s referendum. If, as expected, a majority of Crimeans support union with Russia, Col Podovalov and his men could then be seen as foreign troops occupying Russian soil.
Stoking the tension, Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s recently anointed pro-Russian prime minister, tweeted this week that any Ukrainian units refusing to swear allegiance to Crimea after Sunday would be reclassified as “illegal armed formations”.
Asked what would happen to its bases after Sunday, a spokesman for the Ukrainian defence ministry declined to comment.
In an interview at Belbek, Col Podovalov said he would only abandon the base if ordered to do so by Ukraine’s general staff. But he accepted that the Russians might try to force them out before then, which could lead to military confrontation.
“No one wants a war to start,” he said. “The Ukrainian army is much weaker than Russia’s, and losses will be huge if conflict breaks out.”
Russian commentators, however, think any clash is highly unlikely. “Russia does not actually need to forcibly seize control of these facilities – it can just wait patiently until the Ukrainians give in,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “And if there’s a Yes vote on Sunday, the Ukrainians will anyway feel they are in hostile territory and probably leave of their own accord.”
But another Ukrainian officer at Belbek, who asked that his name not be used, stressed how rapidly the situation could spin out of control if shots were fired. “If these Russian militias attack and a soldier sees his comrade fall, it will be hard to keep a lid on things,” he said. “The survival instinct will kick in.”
Since Russia’s military intervention began on February 27, Ukrainian troops have faced constant pressure to disarm, withdraw from their bases and swear loyalty to the new, self-declared Crimean government. It is unclear how many have succumbed to the pressure, though Ukrainian military sources say only a few have defected.
The Belbek officer said soldiers feared that by giving in to Russian threats, they would lose their pensions and never find work again in Ukraine. Others simply wanted to avoid the stigma of being a “traitor to the motherland”, he said.
But there is also frustration with Kiev, which some believe has not been sufficiently robust in its responses to the Crimean crisis. That was evident in a video appeal by Colonel Yury Mamchur, commander of the Belbek base, to the Ukrainian defence ministry and general staff, in which he begged them to issue clear instructions to all Ukrainian commanders in Crimea on what to do if the situation escalates.
He noted that troops had been ordered to “hold firm, not give in to provocations and not to take up arms”. It was not clear what they should do if they or their families came under direct threat.
He said if no decisions were taken by Kiev, troops may be forced to open fire on their Russian attackers. His troops were no match for the Russians “but we are prepared to fulfil our duty to the end”, he added.
Meanwhile, Crimea’s new pro-Russian leaders are making soothing noises about the post-referendum transition. In an interview with RIA Novosti this week, Mr Aksyonov predicted that most Ukrainian officers would bow to the inevitable. “Many commanders are saying, ‘if you decide to join Russia, we will raise the white flag and disarm’,” he said.
He added they could continue to serve in the newly created Crimean armed forces or go home to Ukraine. “We guarantee freedom and security to everyone, except for those who take up arms,” he said, warning that anyone “inciting rebellion” would face prosecution.
At the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol, a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers in balaclavas were standing guard, supported by “self-defence” units – volunteer fighters from the local Russian population, most of them in civilian garb.
Oleg Likhachev, a bearded Cossack from Sevastopol, said the Ukrainian soldiers blockaded in the base had “betrayed their country by swearing allegiance to fascists”.
“After the referendum, Sevastopol will be Russian and then these guys will have to decide what to do: whether they’ll change their oath, or just resign,” he said.